The world we live in is a large, complex thing.
All actions have reactions, and some consequences are so far-reaching we might never see them coming.
So how do we make choices?
How do we decide what to support, what to believe, and what to protect, modify, or use?
Nowadays, the decisions we make as humans have consequences we might never learn about or be affected by.
For example, think back on your week.
Did you buy coffee? Did you eat a bag of chips or some other processed snack? Do the tags on any of your clothing say “Made in Vietnam”?
That coffee might have been grown in a recently deforested patch of rainforest by poor families under the hand of large corporations who offer pitiful pay.
That clothing may have been manufactured in a factory with restrictive working conditions and few worker’s liberties.
Your snack probably contained palm oil, which is a leading contributor to deforestation and a loss of biodiversity in Southeast Asia, specifically in Indonesia and Malaysia.
I’m not here to question your decisions, and I’m definitely at fault for these things on a regular basis, but I am trying to stress a point:
Every action we take has a direct result somewhere else.
So it can be difficult to decide where to place value.
Is it worth it to avoid your favorite brand of chips in hope that the company will stop utilizing palm oil?
Some people make this decision, refusing to participate in the consumption of products they consider unethical, such as palm oil or non-fair trade coffee.
This approach is often seen as admirable, but it has its own issues.
The countries of Indonesia and Malaysia account for approximately 85% of the world’s palm oil production, according to an economic analysis of palm oil performed by Spott.org.
As a result of this, approximately 1.7 million Indonesians and 800,000 Malaysians live on money produced either directly or indirectly from palm oil.
These are people who have families to raise and support, just like us.
In developing nations such as these, where a great majority of the impoverished community takes the form of poor, rural, agricultural workers, palm oil has come to be a reliable source for income as the international market eats it up.
At the same time, carbon emissions from palm oil cultivation in Indonesia accounted for an estimated 2-9% of all tropical land use emissions from 2000 to 2010, according to the same economic analysis listed above.
This is on account of the mass deforestation required to make room for palm oil plantations.
This deforestation has others consequences as well, such as a loss of wildlife.
“Areas in Southeast Asia at risk of deforestation serve as a habitat for the Sumatran orangutan, elephant, and tiger, all of which are critically endangered, as well as for the endangered Bornean orangutan and pygmy elephant” claims the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Population numbers of these animals are rapidly declining due to loss of habitat, poaching, and human-animal conflict.
Southeast Asia will also be one of the first and hardest hit areas of the world as carbon emissions continue to drive rising sea levels, so there is a sense of urgency in finding a resolution for this problem.
So here we have an issue with two sides: the humans who rely on this product for their personal livelihood versus a quickly changing planet, already drastically affected by the Industrial Age actions taken by nations which developed more quickly.
We don’t want families to lose their jobs and homes.
We want to save the rainforest and all its creatures.
We don’t want rising sea levels to destroy coastal regions.
We still want to eat a comforting cup of pudding during finals.
If these are all true statements, how do we consolidate our values and make a decision?
What drives us to place our value on one side of these complicated situations when we can see worth in every position?
I don’t have the answer, and I don’t think any person could ever answer this question for anyone except themselves.
So I encourage you to think. Remember that every situation you might encounter is a complex system of interrelated people, events, and actions.
Think ahead, knowing that how you act and make decisions in your life can affect the world in ways you can’t imagine.
Be informed, be thoughtful, and be self-aware.
If, and when, you firmly decide your position on a topic, remember to listen to others whose opinions differ from yours.
This is how we can grow, learn, and become a better species.